Published by the Centennial Anniversary Committee of the Atlanta Area Unitarian Universalist Congregations
Feriel Feldman Chair
©1982 Centennial Anniversary Committee of the Atlanta Area Unitarian Universalist Congregations
Jo Graham Stern Editor
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Unitarian Universalism: The First Hundred Years in Atlanta
For a hundred years fighting for human rights has been the hallmark of Atlanta Unitarians. Despite tumultuous times, three churches and three fellowships have emerged from the first stalwart congregation of eight members.
by Charles C. (Spike) Brooks
Charles C. (Spike) Brooks is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. He is a 1942 graduate of Yale University and served during World War Il as a member of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition. A native of Baltimore, he has lived in Atlanta since 1948.
Who was first?
The fact is the Universalists were here first, and it was in 1879, not 1882, that Rev. W. C. Bowman organized a small Atlanta congregation. But within a year Bowman “was called to other fields,” and the Universalists, who had first come to Georgia (in Macon) in 1838, withdrew from Atlanta not to return until 1893.
Thus the real beginning can fairly be marked by the arrival in January, 1882, of a remarkable man named George Leonard Chaney. He had been a Unitarian minister for 15 years at Boston’s Hollis Street Church. He was a product of the finest schools: Boston Latin, Harvard (1859), and Meadville Theological School (1862).
Chaney was independently wealthy and happily married to Caroline Isabel; he was a Yankee abolitionist and a Unitarian Christian; he came south to establish an outpost for his religion and to pursue his interest in helping the Negroes. The Emancipation Proclamation was then only 19 years old, the end of the Civil War only 17, and Atlanta had been incorporated just 35 years (1847).
He helped found The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute For the Training of Colored Young Men and Women in Tuskegee, Alabama. Booker T. Washington was principal, and George Washington Carver was a distinguished faculty member; Chaney was a trustee for many years and president for one. He was a trustee of Hampton Institute, a black school in Virginia, a trustee of Atlanta University and a founder of the Artisan’s Institute, a vocational school which was the forerunner of Georgia Tech.
This brilliant Yankee endeared himself to the white Southern community: he started the first free lending library which was also the first library open to women and blacks. Filling many speaking engagements, he probably enjoyed his finest hour in 1887 when he spoke to a record crowd of 2,000 on Memorial Day at the Civil War Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia.
George Chaney stayed nearly nine years preaching sermons which were not those of a radical dissenter from traditional Christianity. At his first service on February 19, 1882, he preached to a congregation of eight; but by February 27, 1883, (Archivist Note: Correct date is March 27, 1883) when he organized the Church of Our Father, he had 26 charter members and on April 23, 1884, he dedicated the first church building on the site of what is now the Central Atlanta Public Library.
However at his departure in November 1890, only 66 people had signed the membership list, and some of these had moved or died (the record is not clear). Thus the small church clung precariously to an existence possible only through generous funding by the American Unitarian Association in Boston.
The members were mainly northern, liberal, intergrationist outsiders then (as they mainly still are) with a sprinkling of born-askew native Georgians. On the other hand, the Universalists were largely rural conservative Southerners. And they still are, in such small north Georgia towns as Canon, Winder, and Senoia.
Universalism returned to Atlanta in 1893 in the person of Rev. Q. H. Shinn. On February 24, 1895 he organized the First Universalist Church with 12 founding members; and in July, 1900, under Rev. W. H. McGlaughlin the first church building was dedicated at 16 East Harris Street.
During Rev. E. Dean Ellenwood’s eight-year ministry (1905-1913) the Atlanta church had “encouraging growth” with a membership of 170 in 1910. Up to the merger with the Unitarians in 1918, the Universalists appear to have been happier, more successful, and more prosperous than the Atlanta Unitarians, who by 1908 had seen their number plunge to 55 from a high of as many as 160 several years before.
By the advent of the fourth Unitarian minister in 1900, Clarence A. Langston, the starting salary was down from the $2,000 annually paid to George Chaney to $1,400 and dipped further to $1,200 by 1903, prompting Langston to resign. The board refused to accept his resignation saying: “We were directed to tell you of the undivided love and affection in which you are held by our entire church” (but offered him no increase); he decided to stay.
Langston had dedicated the second church building, at Spring and Cain Streets on November 16, 1900 ( the first had been sold in 1899 to the Carnegie Free Library).
On June 9, 1904, the congregation finally summoned the courage after 21 years to use the word “Unitarian” in the church name. It was designated in the new charter as The Unitarian Church Of Atlanta.
Clarence Langston stayed two more years, until 1905; then he resigned again and left Atlanta for good. Langston’s resignation changed the board’s tone from that of “undivided love and affection” (in 1903) to that of ugly criticism. From a letter to Samuel A. Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), from the board, October 16, 1905:
“No doubt you are aware that our pulpit has been filled (by Langston) with mediocrity, coupled with indolence and indifference, for the past five years …
“We now believe the right leader (new minister Moore Sanborn) and the exact psychological moment have come to ensure us success.”
Crisis of 1908
But Sanborn lasted less than a year. By April 1908 the Unitarian position was desperate. In spite of their differences, the Unitarians and Universalists were a lot closer to each other religiously than to any other denomination, both in Atlanta and in their Boston home offices. Consequently, to save the day for the Unitarians “fusion” with the Universalists was proposed but lost by a close vote of the congregation. W. M. Francis (a Southern member) then moved that “in order to admit of the church becoming a more local movement and to efface any local prejudice through there being a considerable number of Northern people connected with it more or less prominently, that the present organization vote to disband.” The motion failed. Francis and T. C. Perkins, who were the two lay officers, and Rev. A. T. Bowser all resigned. Universalist minister E. Dean Ellenwood wrote to offer refuge in his church to the beleaguered Unitarians.
From a letter to Bowser from President Eliot of the AUA, April 23, 1908: “I regret to hear that the merger proposition has been laid on the table. This seems to me a question of unite or die. They can hardly expect further financial support from their Association.” Samuel Eliot’s letter is attached to page 335 of the first book of records of the Church; the remaining pages in that book are blank; the first entry, in the next book still in the archives, is dated November 13, 1925, 171/2 years later.
Third Building (1915)
Somehow the Atlanta Unitarians survived the crisis of 1908; and by 1915 the AUA was optimistic enough about the future to finance construction of a beautiful new 240-seat church at 669 West Peachtree Street.
George Chaney, then 79, was invited to make the principal address at the dedication ceremony of the new church on November 7, 1915. He and his wife Caroline came back to Atlanta from Salem, Massachusetts, from the house where he had been born in 1836 and where he would die in 1922 at the age of 86; they appreciated the stained glass windows of the church, which bore the inscription: “In honor of George Leonard Chaney and Caroline Isabel Chaney.” The Rev. Joseph Wade Conkling (1912-1918) was minister of the Unitarian congregation.
Ten years after the first proposal for fusion in 1908 and 43 years before the national bodies merged, the Atlanta Unitarians and Universalists finally did merge on November 14, 1918. The Rev. Conkling had died in France earlier that year, so John W. Rowlett returned to be the first minister having served in the Unitarian pulpit previously (1908-1911); the name was changed to Liberal Christian Church.
On October 20, 1926, the Rev. Clinton Lee Scott became minister, at the age of 39 (in 1982 he is still active at age 95 and preaches occasionally). Scott hit the ground running, and soon after his arrival, he proposed: A name change to United Liberal Church; by-law revisions; a purge of the membership list; permission to speak often to outside bodies; approval for 40 new hymn books (which he had already purchased); and an outside bulletin board, “The Wayside Pulpit.”
On June 10, 1927, at the quarterly meeting he set a three-year goal: “doubling of all the resources of the church, in members, finances, and in members of auxiliary organizations”; at that same meeting his name change was adopted. He also spoke favorably of Humanism, “an attempt to get away from vague and loose definitions of God.” The minutes state: “he (Scott) thought it would be a fine three year program. It wasn’t long before the rest of us thought so, too, for a motion was made for adoption, and it was voted unanimously.”
That motion was made by Haynie Summers of Senoia, Georgia. Now in his eighties, Summers is presently a member and prime mover of the Harmony Universalist Church in Senoia, and editor of the Universalist Herald, whose roots go back to 1847. Besides writing his own editorials, he inserts pieces by ministers from around the country including one by Clinton Lee Scott in the September 15, 1980, issue.
Clint Scott has written of his Atlanta experience: “Atlanta was rather primitive at that time (1926), with no hard roads leading into the city. Every institution, including all churches, was ‘Jim Crow.’
“There was an elaborate system of intercolor relations baffling to a Yankee…. I found all such superficial but deeply rooted formalities difficult to live with, and I never could explain them to my children. Martha, returning from school and remembering something her grade school teacher said about Negroes, asked: ‘Daddy, are colored people human beings?’
“My Atlanta pastorate was for me a happy experience, a fine cooperative membership, a free pulpit ……
In addition to fighting racial injustice, he took on the Ku Klux Klan, the American Legion, and renowned Southern Methodist Bishop Warren A. Candler who did not like liberals. Bishop Candler wrote a pamphlet “The Menace of Unitarianism” which made Unitarians responsible for the doctrine of evolution, the secularization of religion, and all social reforms not approved by the author. Scott promptly bought large quantities and used them for publicity for his church. He left in December 1929 after only three years but with his goals fulfilled. Rufus McCall (then and now a member) says “the congregation was sorry to see him go.”
Eight months later, on September 1, 1930, the pulpit was filled by the Rev. Aubrey F. Hess, and the effects of the Great Depression hit the United Liberal Church. The financial status became so bleak that on June 8, 1934, it was moved that the church be closed for an indefinite period. But by severely reducing expenses, and with additional aid from the Universalist General Convention (for which Clinton Lee Scott was largely responsible), the doors stayed open.
At the same time Dr. Hess faced a crisis of confidence in his ministry brought on by the continuing diversity between the Unitarians and Universalists in the ranks. On June 15, 1934, a ballot was mailed to the members stating, “A frank expression from all the members in regard to the pastor is most necessary at this time,” and asking if Dr. Hess should remain or resign; he survived by a 47-23 vote, with 7 “indifferent.” Aubrey Hess died suddenly on Oct. 27, 1935. His widow Jean Hess and daughter Jean Wells are now members of the Northwest Congregation.
Death in Atlanta
The basic differences that nearly wrecked the church in 1908 finally did destroy it 40 years later. In 1944 the Atlanta church had severed its affiliation with the AUA which had criticized its policy of segregation.
In 1948 a black Unitarian from Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, came to Atlanta University to be chairman of the Department of Social Work. The United Liberal Church refused him membership, prompting the minister, the Rev. Isaiah Jonathan Domas, to resign. He had distressed many of his flock not only by favoring Jones’ membership but also by supporting Henry Wallace and opposing universal military training.
The American Unitarian Ministers’ Association scored the church for denying membership to Dr. Jones and urged that none of its members take the pastorate until that action was revoked. The Atlanta church refused to change its position.
Apparently the Universalist Church of America took a similar stand to that of the Unitarian Ministers Association. Earle LeBaron the minister who replaced Isaiah Domas was of the Christian Church denomination (Disciples of Christ), and the congregation remained segregated. LeBaron left at the end of 1949.
In 1951 the American Unitarian Association, which had for 69 years supported the Atlanta church and owned the building, had the last word when they sold it out from under the small remaining membership; the purchaser was the Bible Research Foundation, Inc., headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher.
Liberal religion in Atlanta was dead officially although a small group hired Baptist minister Joe Rabun to conduct services at the Cox Carlton Hotel until the spring of 1954.
In early 1952 the AUA was ready to try again. It sent the Rev. Glenn O. Canfield to Atlanta to revive the United Liberal Church. He held services for a year at the Briarcliff Hotel, complete with talkback, “an unusual feature”which was the subject of an article in the May 5, 1952 Atlanta Constitution. The headline: “Pastor’s Sermon Debated.”
A year later a church building at 605 Boulevard Drive N.E. was purchased from the Mormons, and on January 20, 1954, the church was officially reorganized with 127 members. Dr. John E. Beck was elected president, and Morgan Stanford was named to chair the constitution committee. A provision to exclude “nondesirable persons” was defeated; and the new congregation became integrated.
By the time Glenn Canfield resigned his very successful ministry on October 15, 1956, the membership had doubled, and Unitarianism had been successfully born again in Atlanta.
Rev. Edward Allision Cahill arrived on February 10, 1957, and was installed on March 26. At the ceremony, the opening sentences were read by Dr. Rufus E. Clement, the black president of Atlanta University and a member of the United Liberal Church. The installation sermon was delivered by Frederick May Eliot, president of the AUA. Mayor William B. Hartsfield welcomed Cahill to the community, and Ed Cahill had the last (closing) words.
It was an impressive start for a dynamic four and-a-half-year ministry. The right person had arrived at the right time for the right causes of human rights, civil rights, and liberal religion. The story is best told in the following excerpts from a recent letter written by the Rev. Cahill from his home in Concord, N.H., where he is Minister Emeritus of The Unitarian Church:
“I look back on my ministry in Atlanta as one of the most important periods of my life and with great satisfaction and gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to work with a congregation who knew what liberal religion was all about and who realized that words like Justice, Truth, Compassion, Love, were sterile and empty unless backed up by blood and muscle of human commitment.
“Glenn Canfield had been commissioned to established a (new) United Liberal Church clearly committed to human and civil rights. The church made a complete break with its past. The congregation demonstrated, with courage and sacrifice, that principle and integrity need not be sacrificed in order to build a church. There were few summer patriots. The members were geared for action.
“The City of Atlanta knew where the church stood on the critical issues. The church was integrated, not just desegregated; Whitney Young, then Dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work (and later national head of the Urban League), was a black member of the Board of Trustees. (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., then assistant to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was a pulpit guest, as was Sam Williams, another outstanding black minister).
“Let me recount two incidents which characterize the United Liberal Church in those days.
“Atlanta University students had organized a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter in Rich’s. Several hundred were arrested for trespassing, and jailed. On Sunday morning during the talkback, the chairman of the Public Affairs Committee asked how many members would be willing to return their Rich’s charge cards in protest. Over a hundred hands went up, and over a hundred cards were in the mail that afternoon.
“The second illustration involved the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Coretta Scott King (now King’s widow) was leader of the Youth Group. Our church arranged joint Sunday evening programs, alternating between the two churches, so black and white young people could get to know one another.
“The Klan called Mrs. Cahill, in my absence, and threatened violence at the next Sunday evening meeting at the United Liberal Church. Coretta King was consulted; she said to go ahead. All parents were called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent held back. In fact, all the fathers came that evening and ringed the church outside to form a visible wall of protection.
“Every ministry is important in some sense,” Cahill concluded, “but Atlanta stands out for me.”
The Rev. Eugene Pickett, (now President of the Unitarian Universalist Association), was installed as minister in January, 1962. Speakers included Dana McLean Greeley, first president of the newly, nationally merged UUA, and Mrs. Aubrey F. (Jean) Hess, widow of the former pastor and very active in Atlanta church affairs after his death in 1935. Among the chamber musicians (who played Brahms and Mozart) was recently deceased cellist Donovan Schumacher who continued to play for UUCA until several years after Pickett’s departure in 1974.
Canfield had revived it; Cahill had fired it with purpose; and now Pickett guided the church to full and prosperous maturity. By the end of Pickett’s twelve-and-a-half-year ministry, the membership had grown eightfold, from 127 in 1954 to 1,040 members in 1974. The fifth and present church building had been outgrown and two new satellite churches were organized.
The first serious challenge came in August, 1962 Having outgrown the Boulevard church, the board appointed a site selection committee, and after many tries the committee found a suitable eleven and-a-half-acre tract on Shady Valley Drive, between Lenox and Roxboro Roads. But when it became known that the congregation was integrated, the neighborhood looked to Atlanta Alderman Buddy Fowlkes to lead the fight against issuing a building permit. Fowlkes based his objection on “potential traffic congestion.” The August 23, 1962 North Side News front page headline read: “Blockbusting in North Side defeated by Aldermen, 11 to 3.” Rodney Cook, later to run for governor as a Republican, was one of the three on the side of the church.
In November 1962 the Boulevard church was sold; the congregation moved to temporary quarters in Clark Howell School on Tenth Street and continued to look for an appropriate site.
On Thursday, January 24, 1963, The North Side News lead headline stated: “Cokesbury Methodists reject bid by blockbusters for Northside property. Bi-racial United Liberals lose despite fat offer.” The Methodists, located at Cheshire Bridge and Sheridan Roads, issued a categorical denial that an offer had even been made.
Later in that year, the Cliff Valley Way property was purchased, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new building on January 10, 1965; President Harry C. Adley broke the first ground on a cold, happy day, and those who gathered there sang Finlandia.
On February 21, 1965, a new constitution was adopted and the name of the congregation changed for the fourth time to a fifth name, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. The church was finished by the end of the year at a cost of $449,000 and the first service held on January 2, 1966. After two summers without it air conditioning was installed in August, 1967, for $40,000.
Gene Pickett remembers his early days: “One of my early apprehensions was the talkback after the sermon. In those days it lasted almost as long as the service itself, and my predecessor, Ed Cahill, was known for the brilliance with which he responded to questions and challenges. After my first few Sundays, I decided the talkback would have to go. It was not a showcase for my talents. But I was naive in the ways of congregations. When I left, the talkback was still there!”
Pickett carried on from Cahill the leadership of the congregation in fighting the human rights and civil rights battles of Atlanta in the sixties. When the heat of those battles cooled and the chief concern became personal growth, he continued to lead the church well. Like Cahill he was always very visible to the Atlanta community. On July 27,1974, five days before Gene Pickett left Atlanta, The Atlanta Constitution printed a long and positive article about his twelve-year ministry. The headline: “Unitarian Shift Inward Began With Rev. Pickett.”
In the article he explained that as the times changed and the issues changed so did the congregation under his leadership.
“There has been a shift from community involvement and social action to increased emphasis on personal growth and development,” Rev. Pickett said. “The issues are different now. In 1962 the church was very much involved with integration and the entire race issue and later with anti-war activities. Now there is a lot of defining what the new issues are and how a religious organization can best deal with them.”
The Canfield-Cahill-Pickett era of rebirth and great growth was over.
Van Buren (1967-1969)
In 1967 UUCA hired a second minister for the first time as assistant to Gene Pickett. Edgar T. (Toby) Van Buren stayed for two turbulent years to be in charge of the youth program — “confused kids and worried parents,” to quote from his vivid description of his ministry. Other excerpts from Van Buren’s description:
“Survivors of the late sixties will remember them as times of massive upheaval and conflict. The church reflected these conflicts, suffered with them, and also tried to be a field for dialog and working out of differences. In this it partially succeeded. We had untold numbers of meetings, sermons, and counter-sermons.
“Fortunately, through all of this UUCA maintained its sense of humor. There were secret chuckles even when marijuana sprouts were found growing in some of the indoor plant containers.
“Also, it seemed that the people would define some project or area as their own sacred turf — an understandable way of coping with the largeness of the church and the unsettling pace of change.
“We had lots of close friendships and our share of sidesplitting laughs at UUCA. Most of all, I enjoyed the chance for Penny and me to have after-service lunch with Helen and Gene Pickett, a chance to laugh over the foibles of what surely was a crazy age.”
Toby Van Buren left the ministry, and is now a commercial fisherman on Sullivans Island, S.C.
Jacobsen (1970- )
Don Jacobsen came to UUCA in September, 1970, as associate minister and minister of education. Jacobsen is a religious humanist, and has been a Unitarian Universalist minister for 27 years. Recently he wrote about educating children on Sunday mornings:
“Thirteen groups of children are in our building, and something of significance is going on in each group. Observing the satisfaction of the teachers is a special joy. There are college professors challenged by the high energy levels and short attention spans of bright 4th, 5th, and 6th graders; attorneys, administrators, architects, psychologists, and research scientists excited by the level of sensitivity of our older children; social workers, physicians, sales reps, market analysts, and computer programmers experiencing the tender wonder of creating a nourishing religious environment for preschoolers.
“The resources are there, the caring is there, the concern is there; the teachers feel it, the children feel it. For me it’s very frequently an experience of worship.”
Interim minister Glyn Pruce spent six months at UUCA, from September 1974 to March 1975.
The Rev. Charles Allan (Chuck) Reinhardt arrived in August, 1975, and stayed 15 months. He followed on the heels of a minister with the longest tenure, the most tremendous record of growth, and at least the equal in popularity of any church leader in Atlanta Unitarian history. For those reasons it was the most difficult assignment possible. Here is the report of Reinhardt’s ministry by Holly Wyand, president of the congregation:
“This (1976) has been one of the most difficult years that UUCA has struggled through. Beginning in April with a frank discussion between Mr. Reinhardt and the Board about dissatisfaction with the Sunday services, efforts were made to turn around a disturbing situation — loss of Sunday attendance, general unease, and constant behind the-scenes agitation. In October Mr. Reinhardt suggested that the Congregation be asked its opinion of his ministry, since he felt a lack of committed support from the lay leadership. The Congregation met on Dec. 5, 1976, to discuss and to vote on his affirmation. The vote was 236-231 (4 abstentions) to affirm. On December 9, the Board accepted Mr. Reinhardt’s resignation.”
UUCA had no senior minister, interim or otherwise, for the next two-and-a-half years. Associate Minister Don Jacobsen, and a strong lay leadership were steadying influences during that time.
The Rev. David Oran Rankin describes his initial experiences in Atlanta: “I arrived at UUCA in May of 1979. While amply warned that the Congregation was odd and independent, the first seven weeks were hardly predictable.
“A young woman resigned from the Congregation because she did not want hymn singing on Sunday morning.
“A long-time member said he liked the sunken pulpit so he could look down on the minister.
“A pro-life advocate marched around the gallery shouting that all Unitarians were murderers.
“A piece in Atlanta Magazine charged that our sanctuary was a bordello.
“A prayer from the pulpit brought 412 dazed, perplexed, and puzzled expressions.
“But the seven weeks finally ended. The next three years were a piece of cake. I discovered some of the nicest and most gifted people I will ever have the pleasure of knowing.”
Rankin had fought in the ring as a middleweight boxer (192 wins in 200 bouts); and he had taught political science at Cornell College in Iowa before entering the ministry. He is a first-rate preacher and in 1978 published a collection of his sermons called So Great a Cloud of Witnesses. The After-word, “A Sermon on Sermons”, begins:
“I delivered my first sermon over twelve years ago. My head was pounding; my hands were sweating; my knees were knocking; my stomach was churning. And it was still the night before!”
David Rankin left UUCA in July 1982, after three years for a new post as senior minister at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The concept of a Central City group was first discussed in 1965 by those dissatisfied with the new UUCA location on Cliff Valley Way. The group evolved into the Central Unitarian Society, then to a Fellowship, and went out of existence in 1969.
Northwest (1968- )
The Northwest Unitarian Congregation began as a “third service” of UUCA, with services in the Liberty Guinn School in 1968, and then at a school in Sandy Springs in 1969. In September, 1969, John Burciaga was called as minister for a three-year stay.
Robert W. Karnan was named minister in 1974. In February, 1977 the Congregation moved into its present building at 1025 Mt. Vernon Highway, and in 1982 has a membership of 235, including many former members of UUCA.
The widow of Dr. Aubrey F. Hess (minister 193035), Jean Hess, is a member of Northwest and has been an active Atlanta Unitarian Universalist for 52 years. Her daughter, Mrs. Robert E. (Jean) Wells, is also a member. On March 9, 1980, Bob Karnan’s sermon honored Jean Hess for her 50 years of devoted effort in Atlanta and the Southeast, and he read a letter of congratulation from Helen and Gene Pickett.
Karnan’s 1974 installation ceremony was held in the Abbey Restaurant, 669 West Peachtree Street, the home of the United Liberal Church until 1951. He studied the stained glass windows that had been installed in honor of George and Isabel Chaney, and realizing their historic value, negotiated with MARTA to obtain them “on indefinite loan.” Karnan intervened before the building was demolished to make way for the MARTA rail line. Half the windows are now on display at the Northwest church, and due to a generous gesture on the part of the Northwest Congregation, the remaining windows are at Cliff Valley.
Southside (1975- )
First, Frances West (now an ordained minister) and then the Rev. Lanier Clance served this group, which became an official fellowship in January, 1977, with ten members.
Existentialist (1976- )
The front page lead story in the October 15, 1981 UU World was about this church, which first met in the Decatur living room of the Rev. R. Lanier Clance, with eight members, his children, and four cats. The headline read: “Atlanta church: 8 to 350 in five years.”
Lanier Clance says: “Our congregation began as a dream, in which liberal-progressive concepts of religion and philosophy could be combined with the spirit and energy found in fundamentalistic religious groups.”
In 1978 the congregation moved to the Decatur YMCA, and in April, 1980 to a church building at 470 Candler Park Drive in Atlanta, purchased from the Phoenix Unitarian Fellowship. (The Phoenix group had been organized in 1973, and still continues on an informal basis.) New members are attracted by the enthusiasm of the congregation and by a two-inch ad on the Saturday religion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The First Existentialist Church of Atlanta now has 450 members and is the second largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Atlanta area.
Northeast (1981- )
The Northeast UU Fellowship was organized in May 1981, with over 50 founding members, and meets at the Mountain Park Depot, within sight of Stone Mountain. Its formation had strong support from UUCA and from the Rev. Todd Taylor, UUA Interdistrict Representative.
Several years ago when the concept of “Communities” was revived at UUCA, one community located in Gwinnett County was called “Way the Hell Out;” that former Community and the new Northeast Fellowship are not related; but the old name clearly describes the reason for the new congregation.
Emerson (1982- )
The newest UU group is the Emerson Fellowship, begun in May 1982 by 32 former members of the Northwest Unitarian Congregation. They meet at DeKalb Federal Savings and Loan, Merchant’s Walk, in Southeast Cobb County.
The successful growth of the Unitarian Universalists in Atlanta suffered from the beginning because of the problems of race. For the Northerners come South, “liberal” had to include an integrated society. For many Southern religious liberals it could not include such a society or even an integrated congregation. After 72 years of internal conflict the Atlanta Church in 1954 along with Atlanta itself took a strong stand for racial justice, and the basic racial tension was eased.
In its 100-year history UUCA has had 28 ministers. By comparison, the 100-year-old (in 1981) First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, roughly as remote from Boston as Atlanta geographically and philosophically, has had eight ministers. But UUCA has had only five in the last 30 years, an accurate reflection of stability in the new church and in the New South.
In 1905 The Unitarian Church of Atlanta had 100 members, one-tenth of one percent of the city’s population of 100,000; the Rev. Clarence Langston reported at that time on the state of the church:
“The most notable failing of members was a want of cordiality to strangers. . . . Attention was called to the large number of people in the community who should be in active membership. ‘Work your friends’ was suggested as an appropriate slogan.”
In 1982 the combined membership of the Atlanta area churches and fellowships is 1,500, almost exactly the same one-tenth of one percent of the population (of 1,800,000) as in 1905.
Does this mean that future growth of the Atlanta Unitarian Universalists will be limited to one-tenth of one per cent of the population? Or is there a greater percentage out there, who would join if they knew of our existence in the community?
Atlanta’s Legacy: Tireless Ministers, ‘A Few Courageous Members’
by Robert W. Karnan
Robert W. Karnan is minister of the Northwest Unitarian Congregation. He received the doctor of divinity degree in 1970 from Meadville Theological School, University of Chicago.
One hundred years is a long enough time to preclude anyone now living from remembering the events that precipitated the beginnings of Unitarianism in Atlanta. If we are to recover any of that early story we must now go to second hand testimony, incomplete and inadequate records, and whatever letters and diaries we can garner from the participants in the beginning events.
The story that emerges from what partial information we can now rely on tells of ministers and lay people of foresight and determined courage who kept working despite many setbacks and a hostile environment. The story has three main themes: a reconstruction-era southern city that was an unfriendly environment for a clearly “Yankee” abolitionist and an anti-fundamentalist liberal Christianity; the persistence of the race issue as a dividing line causing protracted conflict within the Unitarian church members in Atlanta; and the generous and loving care that ministers and lay people alike gave to the Atlanta Unitarian effort which made its survival possible over the last one hundred years.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism existed in one form or another in Georgia prior to the beginnings of Unitarianism in Atlanta (or even the Atlanta area). The first Unitarian congregation formed in Augusta, Georgia in 1826. A meeting house was erected in 1827 and a minister called in 1830. But by 1837 the minister had departed and the congregation dissolved because of internal strife, conflict with the American Unitarian Association over their anti-slavery stand, and severe criticism from the community for their liberal Christian beliefs.
A Unitarian Church formed in Savannah in 1830 but it also experienced the same problems as the group in Augusta and by 1859 had disbanded. The experience was so disheartening to Unitarians that when the then brash and young minister of the Savannah church suggested in 1854 that a Unitarian denomination-sponsored mission group be established in the Atlanta area (specifically in Marietta), he was soundly rebuked by one of the founders of the Augusta congregation and a pillar of Unitarianism in Georgia. Dr. Richard Arnold
chastised the young minister gently but firmly in a letter saying, “No, no, Georgia is too new a country, in that section of it, for Unitarian Christianity. A few from the land of steady habits may carry it thither with them, but if it were strangled in Augusta, I have no hopes of its reviving and flourishing in Marietta, Cobb County, which twenty years since was an Indian Hunting ground. . . ”
Universalism began in Georgia in the late 1830’s and has had many ups and downs since. But that story will have to wait for another telling, perhaps in a 150th year celebration in 1989.
The Atlanta Unitarian story begins with the coming to Atlanta in January of 1882 of the Rev. George Leonard Chaney. The American Unitarian Association was advised by knowledgeable ministers that Atlanta would be a great waste of time for Chaney; but Chaney argued: “If we could not find acceptance there, we could not live anywhere in the South.”
He set out from Boston on January 9, 1882, and arrived in Atlanta late in the month after speaking in various cities on the way. His first act was to identify those who would be likely prospects; he found about ten people. Advertising in the local paper, he gave his first service and sermon February 19, 1882, in the Senate chambers of the state legislature. There were eight people present and his topic was: “How much is a man worth?” Aside from monetary worth which Chaney thought a poor way to measure worth, he thought that it is the dreams we hold, the ideals we cherish, and the hard work through times of failure until our dreams are realized that is the measure of the worth of a person.
The second service was held in the same place and was titled, “The Positive Principles of Unitarian Christianity.” There were 10 people present and these were the same 10 he had previously identified as interested Unitarians. No one from the community responded to his newspaper ads. This lack of response continued for some time and he wrote later: “This went on for six months — the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and awakening few responses beyond its own echo. I returned to the place from whence I came out (Boston) and reported progress, or rather, want of progress…… It took Chaney until March 1883 to gather enough people to found a congregation. The covenant signed by the 27 original members is in the records of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta.
Chaney had a very quick sense of humor. I must believe it was at work when he used Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 6:4 for his text in his second sermon. His bleak notice of the few gathered and the southern alliteration are quite funny. The text goes like this: “One God, and Father of all — above all —through all — and in you all.”
The sermon was so compelling in its summarizing the enthusiastic center of Unitarianism that the members in March 1883 decided to name their church, The Church of Our Father. There is something devilish in me that wishes they had instead named it “The Church of You All.”
Chaney came alone to Atlanta that winter of 1882. He worked hard, but by July when he set out for home in Massachusetts, all he had were his original and faithful ten. He returned in October 1882 and started where he left off, preaching in the Senate chambers, the federal court room in the Post Office building, and in a place called Concordia Hall. In December 1882 Chaney’s wife, Caroline Isabel and his son, Carter, joined him in Atlanta. Actually, it is not quite as simple as that.
Uncle Harry came too. Uncle Harry brought Mrs. Chaney and Carter and all the servants. Mr. and Mrs. Chaney were people of means; their families had come to the New World to do good and had done well. Chaney was a descendent of the original Puritan settlers of Salem, Massachusetts; he was born in the family home in Salem and died there too in his 80’s in 1922.
So when the family arrived, they came with all the trappings. But Chaney was smart enough not to intimidate his little group. He and his wife lived in simple rooms in the Kimball House in downtown Atlanta, while the rest of the party lived in the full splendor to which they were accustomed on an estate in Marietta.
By April 1884, the church had been covenanted, incorporated, built, and dedicated. The money came from the AUA to build the church. The salary for Chaney was paid by the AUA, and the program subsidized by the AUA. This support was to last without termination until well into the 1950’s.
It was clear from the very beginning that Unitarianism would be an uphill effort in Atlanta. The Unitarians were clearly perceived as abolitionist advocates and part of the reason the South had rebelled.
Following the war it was understood that Unitarians were leaders in progressive thought and politics; they were leaders in the founding of the public school systems of many states. They sent educators to the South to found high quality schools intended for anyone, regardless of race, who desired a fine education. They helped found new Unitarian churches and new public libraries. Unitarians were in an aggressive missionary mood. The denomination had just been formed in 1865; prior to that people were Unitarians on an individual basis. But after 1865 churches formed the AUA and sought to expand the Unitarian message of englightened educated thinking of all matters religious and otherwise.
In 1884 a zealously missionary book was published by the young denomination to declare its goals and its agenda. It was called Word and Work of the American Unitarian Association. In that book one author comments:
“What was done for Northern Orthodoxy by the Unitarian Church needs doing for the yet more Calvinistic Orthodoxy of the South … It has a new calling in the present need of the South. If any man doubts it, let him go South; he will find it there. For in the popular preaching of that section there are still such ‘blasts from hell’ as need the cooling and disinfecting touch of ‘airs from heaven.”‘
This was the public image that the denomination wished to perpetuate, and it was also held by many in Atlanta as they beheld the prospect of a new Unitarian Church. “What kind of radical hell-raisers have they sent us?,” they must have asked. There was virtually to attendance at any church function by anyone not already a convinced Unitarian for the first two years of Chaney’s years in the Atlanta pulpit.
But Chaney’s manner was not radical, abrasive, or rebellious. It was gentle, thoughtful, warm, inspirational, and very deep. He held ethical principles that he lived by; but he communicated their virtue by example, not by preaching sin or guilt.
Although there was a private Young Men’s Library in Atlanta, a library of 12,000 volumes, it was not for use by women or blacks. A fee was required that also prevented those of low income from being able to use it.
Rather than use a caustic attack on the powers that be, George Chaney simply set out to etablish a free lendig library for everyone male, female, black, white, poor, wealthy. It had a wide variety of good books, numbering about 1,500 volumes. It so set the stage for a consciousness raising in Atlanta that the Carnegie Foundation set up a public library, bought the church building (in 1895) and accepted the donation of the Unitarian library by the church. So began the Atlanta public library; the brand-new showcase Central Atlanta Public Library in downtown Atlanta is located on the spot where the Church of Our Father once stood.
The example was so powerful that church members living in Marietta began a public library, and reading room there. These two libraries were supported by contributions from Northern Unitarian churches and gifts of books as well; Oliver Wendell Holmes donated to the Marietta Library (now the Cobb County Library) a set of all of his published works. Many other authors did the same.
George Chaney’s strategy of good works and quiet example won over the Atlanta community in a big way. By 1887 Chaney’s high regard in the community was so widespread that he was invited to be the Memorial Day speaker at the Civil War Cemetery in Marietta. According to the Atlanta Journal, the crowd of 2,000 was the largest ever and Chaney was thought by his listeners to have been a remarkably fine speaker.
Chaney was a tireless worker in the service of human good. A list of his accomplishments would have to include his efforts in behalf of improved education.
While minister of the Hollis Street Church in Boston (1862-1877) Chaney became concered about the education of large numbers of immigrant children and adults who came to America for a new chance but who were instead incarcerated in urban ghettos and offered only menial employment. Witnessing the terrible abuses of child labor, the low wages and awful conditions of the factories, he resolved to do something. The something he did was to establish a school in his church for the teaching of advanced wood working and cabinet making skills to immigrant children. It was called first the Whittling Scool, later the Industrial School and finally became a part of the Boston public education system. George Chaney can be credited with being an early pioneer in technical and vocational education eventually serving in national positions in the technical and industrial school movement. He worked closely with the Hampton Institute and the Freedman’s School in Nashville. The members of the Church of Our Father also worked with Chaney to found the Artisans Institute in Atlanta, an effort to provide an adult advanced technical training school and to show the need for one in the Atlanta community. Georgia Tech emerged out of that effort. Chaney also served on the board of trustees of the Atlanta University system working hard to insure quality education to blacks.
George Chaney remembered his years in Atlanta in a brief remembrance he wrote in 1893. “The church of Our Father was fortunate to have far more than its share of authors, educators, artists, musicians, ministers, statesmen … (Dr. Chaney here gives a list of outstanding people who visited his church). I doubt if any evenings so replete with good literature and accomplished art were ever held in Atlanta as those held in this church under the auspices of the Literature and Art Club.”
His philosophy of working by quiet but determined example was the philosophy behind Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and its most famous scientist-professor, George Washington Carver.
It was a famous philosophy declared by Booker T. Washington at the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, where Washington was able to show off many black educational and industrial accomplishments. His speech was called, the “Atlanta Compromise” and in it he argued passionately that the aim of the black person in the South was to live an exemplary life, to be educated fully for liberal arts and especially industrial and agricultural skills, and to leave the vicious field of post war Klan style politics to those who lived in fear and hate. This philosophy dominated black education until the middle of this century.
George Leonard Chaney was on the Tuskegee Board of Trustees for 25 years and served at least once as its president (in the year 1895.) His philosophy of progress in the brutal climate of the post war south obviously sat well with Booker T. Washington. Chaney dedicated the first building
erected at Tuskegee and worked tirelessly on its behalf until his death.
Throughout the Deep South the return of politi’ cal control to Southern whites meant a great loss of advancement for many blacks. There were on average 190 lynchings a year from 1877 to 1900 in these states. The Klan rode high and few dared to speak out. Many who did died for their courage.
A non-confrontational philosophy of self-advancement made a great deal of sense to Southern blacks, as it did as well to the tiny Unitarian community of Atlanta. But advance they did.
Chaney and the Unitarians became well known for their support of art, literature, music, and culture. The church was a forum for the highest and best. Chaney was a sought after lecturer; his seven books were popular and well read, and his involvement in the initiating of a united appeal to support public-health was pioneering and generally supported by Atlantans as well.
Controversy was not Chaney’s way, but human advancement was especially for those who were in greatest need.
By the time Chaney resigned his ministry, November 3, 1890, his congregation had an average attendance of nearly 60. For six more years he worked in the South starting new churches and helping existing ones as the southern superintendent of the AUA. In 1896 he retired to Salem, Massachusetts.
From 1890 until 1915 the Atlanta church had many ups and downs, mostly downs. The members were, according to my readings of the financial records, a very cheap bunch. They constantly begged the AUA for money to subsidize the operation, yet they never really supported it well themselves. Contributions of $5 per year were quite normal. Finally in 1908, the president of the AUA, Samuel Eliot, wrote the Atlanta members a letter, outlining their inability to keep a minister longer than three years (most left after one), their organizational mismanagement, their financial lack of commitment, and their constant expectations for being bailed out. Dr. Eliot told them to fish or cut bait. Choose death or choose life, he said; the choice from there on was theirs. They chose to muddle along, generally as they had been. One fine minister after another came and went, and their reputation fell until it was no more. In the early 1920’s because of lack of payment of back taxes a fifa was executed in the Parish House at the West Peachtree Street Church, and it was almost sold in auction; but the AUA bailed it out.
Records indicate that a few courageous members carried the work of the church. The board was rarely larger than four or five members. The membershp shrank to about 30. In 1915 a new beginning was attempted and the church on West Peachtree was built. Chaney and his wife came down and a great dedication and founders’ day event was celebrated. Stained glass windows were dedicated to George and Caroline and were known as the Founders Windows.
By 1918 the Universalists who were also in trouble, were selling their building and joining an uneasy alliance with the Unitarians. The Univer
salists were largely segregationists and the Unitarians integrationists; Universalists sat on one side of the aisle, Unitarians on the other; a Universalist usually held the treasurer’s post, while a Unitarian became president of the board.
They alternated ministers, but none stayed longer than a couple of years. This sad situation continued until the mid 1920’s when the feisty and now famous Universalist minister, Clinton Lee Scott, came to Atlanta.
Clint Scott is one of our most highly regarded ministers. (He lives in aged retirement in Florida.) He went from Atlanta to become the general superintendent of the Universalist Church in America. But while he was here he performed one of those ministries that is hard for anyone to forget. He shook that little congregation by its collective neck until their teeth could be heard to rattle all the way to Boston. His directness became legendary to a denomination involved with polite avoidance of conflict.
His main accomplishment was the facing of the race issue in the life of the church, and in moving the congregation from a stance of quiet shyness to one of outspoken courage. Scott feared nor lynch mob or night rider. He taught his little congregation that courage as well.
He was followed by Dr. Aubrey F. Hess, a minister of great skill and insight. Aubrey Hess held doctorates in philosophy, psychology, theology and medicine. His widow, as many of you know, is a member of this congregation: Mrs. Jean Hess; so is their daughter, Mrs. Jean Wells.
By the late 1940’s the congregation had dwindled to a mere handful. The AUA sold the West Peachtree Street building and the church became moribund until the early 1950’s when a missionary minister, Glenn Canfield, was sent by the AUA; his message was a frank and forthright religious liberalism and was integrationist as well. The group began to prosper. After a few years he moved on and the Rev. Ed Cahill replaced him. The congregation grew.
By the early 1960’s Eugene Pickett was the minister and a new facility was constructed on Cliff Valley Way. With rapid growth, the congregation easily topped a thousand members. It became once again a headquarters for art, music, drama and poetry and was a firm white support group for early civil rights activity. Members were arrested for holding integrated meetings, and crosses were burned on members’ lawns.
But the group held fast to its views and its vision of a world united not in hate, but in love; it stood for the equality of all — an equality above all, through all, and in all.
Today with three churches and three fellowships scattered throughout the Atlanta area, a total of almost 1,500 Unitarian Universalists meet in our congregations. We exist in typical diversity; yet we have a common history and a common heritage.
Inspired by Clinton Scott, we are willing to speak out, to declare that injustice exists, and to seek redress and correction. Ours has always been a public commitment to the broadening and deepening of the human soul; a commitment to intelligence, education, and culture; to loving care of those in need; to support for those treated unjustly, to acting as a witness for the deepest and the best of which human beings are capable.
This is the story of our first 100 years in Atlanta. As I look about me and the needs that face our day, I can only pray that we meet our next 100 years with as much courage, faith, and commitment, as we have our past 100. And further, that we exceed manyfold that record. Our world needs it; our city needs it.
May our vision, our dreams and our hopes lead us, may our courage and commitment sustain us, and may we celebrate our next 100 years with satisfaction and joy.